Touring Canada by Train

January 6, 2015 Updated: January 8, 2015

Original article on www.gonomad.com

I just got back from a nine-day train trip in Canada, and I had a blast! There’s something about train trips that I have always loved, ever since I was a little boy riding with my grandfather on the club car to his office in New York.

There’s something so relaxing about the rhythmic clickety-clack of the wheels and the gentle rocking of the train. And your time is your own. You can take a nap and catch up on your zzz’s or read a book or just sit in a trance watching the countryside whizz by.

Grandpa and his fellow commuters liked to play bridge. In fact they’d take the local instead of the express so they could get in a few extra rubbers. For me it was blogging and tweeting and Facebooking about my adventures in Canada.

VIA Rail, the Canadian Crown Corporation in charge of passenger rail service, has just invested almost a billion dollars in upgrading service and equipment on their main corridor from Quebec to Toronto, including improvements to their WiFi service, and they invited a group of bloggers from prestigious websites like GoNOMAD to try it out.

In 2006 Via Rail was one of the first transportation services in the world to offer free WiFi to all classes of passengers, and they have put a high priority on connectivity on board the trains and in the stations. They recently upgraded service again, and it’s the best you can get on any mode of transportation in the world.

We visited four great Canadian cities, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec, and that gave us plenty to blog and tweet about — the all-night “Nuit Blanche” festival in Toronto, the Houses of Parliament and the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, the Lantern Festival at the Montreal Botanical Gardens, the orchards and vineyards of the Ile d’Orleans in Quebec, and lots of other cool attractions.

On the train, and in the comfortable lounges in the stations, we were able to write about our visit, share our photos with the folks back home, and catch up with email back at the office. Since we were traveling business class, we had excellent three-course meals with wine; the hot towels were a nice touch, too.

Rail travel has always been important in a far-flung country like Canada. The Western provinces insisted on the construction of a cross-country railroad before they agreed to join the Canadian Federation in the 1870s.

Around the turn of the century, competing railroad magnates built a series of splendid hotels like the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City and the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa to attract rail passengers to Canada, and these hotels offer atmosphere, luxury and service right out of the Gilded Age.

The historic Chateau Frontenac (now called Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac) towers above the Old City of Quebec and the Plains of Abraham, where the fate of Canada was decided in 1756 in the famous battle between the British and the French.

Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt met here to discuss strategy during World War II, and it has hosted celebrities from Charles Lindberg and Grace Kelly to Charles De Gaulle and Ronald Reagan.

For movie buffs it is probably best remembered from the opening scenes of the Alfred Hitchcock movie “I Confess,” filmed in Quebec City, starring Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter and Karl Malden.

It was built in 1893 by William Cornelius Van Horne, general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway, best known for overseeing construction of the first Canadian transatlantic railroad.

The Frontenac was booked up when we visited (We stayed at the equally luxurious Chateau Laurier Quebec), but we had a lovely luncheon there with Catherine Lapierre, assistant director of public relations, who gave us the complete tour.

From the roof gardens where their chef keeps his beehives, to the palatial suites, to the commodious conference rooms, the inside of this historic hotel is just as magnificent as the outside.

Not to be outdone, Charles Melville Hays of the rival Grand Trunk Railway began construction in 1909 of a chateau-style hotel in Ottawa, the Chateau Laurier Ottawa. It was to open on April 26, 1912 and Hays was returning from England to attend the ceremony when he perished aboard the HMS Titanic. They held a subdued ceremony a month later.

Because of its proximity to government buildings and national landmarks in the capital, and because so many important meetings have taken place there, the Chateau Laurier has come to be known as the “third house of parliament.”

This hotel has also hosted its share of celebrities including Shirley Temple, Marlene Dietrich, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.

I had the chance to stay there, and I have to say it really was a thrill. The grandeur of the architecture, the patina on the paneling, the exquisite antique furnishings, and, of course, the service… It was a trip back to the reign of Queen Victoria.

The first of the grand Canadian railway hotels, the Windsor Hotel in Montreal, opened in 1878 as a symbol of the nation’s new prosperity and entertained the great celebrities of the day including Mark Twain and Sarah Bernhardt. It’s an office building now. In Montreal we stayed at W, a very hip luxury hotel right on Victoria Square.

Our trip began in Toronto, the New York of Canada, where more than 130 languages are spoken by more than 200 ethnic groups. Half the population was born outside Canada. There are five Chinatowns, two Little Italies, Little India, Greektown, Koreatown, and many others.

We stayed at the Delta Chelsea, a luxury hotel specializing in family travel. They have a Family Fun Centre on the second floor with a pool, a teen center, an indoor water slide and a year-round summer camp for kids.

Toronto really rocks; you feel so much more connected to the world than you do in the US. We make a show of embracing diversity in the US, but here they’re actually walking the walk. And there are so many ethnic groups that everybody is a minority.

I know a lot of Americans, all members of one particular ethnic group, who are very unsettled by that prospect. I guess they’re just too accustomed to being a dominant culture.

Theresa Archibald, from All About Toronto Tours, who’s originally from Chile, took us on a tour of markets and shops and funky neighborhoods of every possible ethnicity. We went up the CN Tower, and then went over to the huge St. Lawrence Market to have a pea-meal bacon sandwich at the Carousel Bakery, which you have to do if you visit Toronto. I think it’s some kind of city ordinance.

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Copyright © 2015 by Go Nomad. This article was written by Stephen Hartshorne and originally published on www.gonomad.com

*Image of riverbanks to Bow River via Shutterstock